My 8/31/08 Missoulian column
Everyone searches the Web with Google, Yahoo! or another search engine, and almost everyone gets presented with too many hits for their search terms. It’s like that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.” We wished for Internet searches that covered millions of Web sites, and we got it, and we’re buried in results.
But there are ways to focus a search from the very beginning and increase the number of relevant results you get. What you’re up against are the search engines themselves with their huge volumes of information. The indexing “bots” have read hundreds of millions of Web pages and – if you ask them – will find every instance of a word or phrase all across the Web. You want to be able to work with the indexes, not against them. So if you can narrow your search from the beginning with some tools provided, you’ll search better.
If you’re searching with a single term or word, you’ll still have to deal with hundreds (or more) of results. But because of the number of good reference sites out there, looking for a definition of a word will generally bring you to a dictionary site, and many other nouns will take you to Wikipedia or similar “pedia” sites. The Web has greatly matured in recent years and the number of commercial and noncommercial reference sites has increased, and the search engines have indexed many more sites than in the past. The search engines aren’t better at returning hits for single words, but the sites that exist are better.
For anything more than single-term searches, there are better ways to search. One method is to use double quotes around search terms. This works well with names, phrases or parts of phrases. The other method is more complex but also more powerful, and that’s the use of what are called Boolean operators. Those are minus signs in front of terms so as not to include results with that word and the use of the operators AND, NOT or OR, which work the way they sound. All search engines support the use of quotes and Boolean operators.
The first method – using quotes around multiple words or phrases – works well because the quote marks tell the search engine to only show you results that exactly match the words you have in those quotes. You’re telling the search engine to find “exactly this,” and it will.
Quotes are the only way to go, for instance, when searching for proper names. Sometimes you’ll quickly find what you’re looking for without using quotes, but if you get into the habit of using quotes to begin with, it will pay off. If a middle name or initial is involved, you’ll need to try several different searches, but the multiple searches with quotes will give much better results than searches without quotes.
The next step to learn is Boolean logical operators. Just because it’s logic doesn’t mean that using NOT, AND, OR and minus signs in your searches is complicated. (Boolean logic is also the basic logic that drives the hardware behind all computers. AND operators watch two or more inputs and toggle on when all are on. OR and NOT operators are just what the words mean, too. Millions of electronic operators make up microprocessors.)
Using logical operators are easier than it might seem. Search engines assume you mean AND when you type in a few words without quotes; the space between two words is interpreted as asking the engine to look for both these terms. Search for “grizzly music” and you’ll get hits for football teams, bears and bands named grizzly.
Now remember that quotes call also be used along with Boolean operators and will affect your search. On the search examples above and below, quotes are only included for illustration. If you used quotes in the example above, you would only get Web pages that have the words grizzly and music right next to each other; not using quotes would give results with both words anywhere in the Web page.
The NOT operator is maybe the most useful of them all; put a minus sign in front of the words you don’t want included. You can also type NOT, but a minus sign will do. And you can use minus signs and NOT operators with more than one word. Searching for “grizzly -football – music” will give results for bears but (mostly) not for Web sites about football teams and the band Grizzly Bear. You could still miss an important site about a grizzly bear biologist who also plays the banjo, so understand the limitations of a focused search. The OR operator is just that. Typing in “grizzly OR black bear AND music” will find you bands and musicians named Grizzly Bear and Black Bear.
A Google “Cheat Sheet” for searching outlines all the Boolean operators and shows many more capabilities of the search engine. For better searches in plain English, you can go to Google’s advanced search page – which is one jump from the main Google search page. At advanced search, you get text boxes to search for all words or a phrase, without having to figure out how to use AND, NOT or OR operators.
Boolean operators and quotes have been in use for quite a few years, but search engines are constantly tweaking what they offer and trying out new features to make searching easier. One new feature from Google I find annoying: word suggestions as I type in search terms. I don’t want a list of suggested words to pop up when I type because I know what I want, and the suggested search terms stomp all over my saved complex search strings. But there is a solution: Google’s word suggestions only work from the main search page, not (at least currently) from the toolbar search or the search from Google News, so you can get around the annoying word suggestions if need be.